My Turn: Beyond rotten apples and their defenders

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Friday, December 11, 2015 1:03am
  • Opinion

Last May, William Wingate filed a lawsuit against the Seattle Police Department and the former officer who wrongly arrested him 10 months earlier.

“Most of the policemen are good people” he explained to reporters at a press conference, “but you’ve got rotten apples in all professions.”

Before following Wingate’s instructive lead, I am going to focus on the profession he’s suing. Two weeks ago, first-degree murder charges were filed against Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. I won’t repeat the details here — the video of him shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald says enough. But it took a lawsuit by a freelance news reporter for that evidence reach the public’s eyes.

In a much less serious case in Sitka, a teenager was repeatedly stun-gunned while handcuffed behind his back. The Sitka police chief reviewed the video evidence of the incident soon afterward and determined the officers’ action followed established police procedures. More than a year later, a Southeast Alaska citizen posted the video online. Now it’s become another question about police use of excessive force.

It’s not my place to pass judgment on the officers in these cases. Van Dyke will get his day in court. And to his credit, the chief in Sitka responded to public concerns by requesting the Alaska State Patrol perform an independent review.

Wingate’s case can tell us a lot more.

According to Seattle police records, the incident began when Officer Cynthia Whitlach thought she saw Wingate bang a stop sign with a golf club after she drove past him. She didn’t see it happen, but she also wondered if he swung it at her vehicle. So she drove around the block with her dashcam recording and found him at a different intersection leaning on the club as if it was a cane.

Whitlach told Wingate several times to put his golf club down without ever explaining why she wanted to talk to him. He seemed confused. After about 20 seconds, she told him that “it’s a weapon.” He tried to explain that he’d been walking with it for 20 years. Then after he told her he’d done nothing wrong she had the audacity say, “You just swang that golf club at me.”

Eventually, Wingate was handcuffed and booked for harassment and obstruction. He spent the night in jail. The next day the police added a charge of unlawful use of a weapon. Six months after his arrest, the video evidence was made public and all charges were dismissed.

For her part in the incident, police records show Whitlach “received counseling from her supervisor, a course of action that the department believes to be an appropriate resolution.” I’d agree if that was the first time she violated the department’s rules of conduct. But she had several other violations. One occurred only eight months after she joined the force.

How do officers like this remain on the street? The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild represented Whitlach on this case and probably every past violation too. They represented her again when the department learned about racist posts she’d made on Facebook. That’s when she was finally fired.

Van Dyke’s past is checkered too. He’s been the subject of 19 complaints of misconduct, at least eight for excessive use of force. After internal investigations, none were sustained. It’s a good bet the Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police influenced those decisions.

What about the Sitka case? Officers there are represented by the Public Safety Employees Association. What will be their role in that investigation?

As I began, though, Wingate wasn’t condemning all police officers. Likewise, my objective isn’t to bash their unions. I want to follow his lead to other professions because they all have formal associations that regulate behavior and investigate complaints. And it’s hard to imagine there aren’t any lawyers, doctors, teachers and engineers still practicing despite having violated their code of conduct.

To go one step further, blaming unions doesn’t explain how the bad actors become professionals in the first place. So consider these few questions. How many of us were steered toward a profession by the promise of a good salary? Was attaining a position of authority important? Did identifying enjoyable job possibilities take precedent over our natural aptitude toward other lines of work? Is this how we’re guiding our children?

The carrots of money and individualism can easily draw anyone in the wrong direction. And choosing a career path for the reasons like those can plant a bad seed. To paraphrase Wingate, most professionals are good people. But by seeking to serve a purpose higher than ourselves each of us can become something better.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident. He writes a weekly opinion column for the Juneau Empire.

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